Assam imbroglio and democratic politics

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Assam imbroglio and democratic politics : Arup Baisya
 (Not to be published without consent of the author)

The citizenship Question

The political discourse in Assam is revolving around for and against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016. This binary is not antithetical to the ruling class idea of hegemony, and the ruling class has the entire wherewithal to accommodate both sides in stabilizing their hegemonic position. But unfortunately, the Assamese speaking official left forces in Assam are getting trapped in this binary by addressing the issue only through negation of the bill and thus allowing the masses to be camp followers on communal and chauvinist lines. While opposing the bill, they are not spelling out any positive programme for the masses who are apprehensive of losing their citizenship rights. It is also strange to note that the left intellectuals like Hiren Gohain is parroting the claim of large scale Bengali Hindu influx from Bangladesh since 1974, the claim initially propagated by Hindutwa forces on the basis of inadequate factual data to fan communal passion in the sub-continent and thus, they are giving legitimacy to the Hindutwa theory of large scale (more than a crore) migration from Bangladesh due to religious persecution. A small section of opinion builders who are opposing the bill on the ground of unconstitutionality and religious overtones is demanding the inclusion of the names of 2014 voter list in NRC. In their opinion, 2014 voter list was prepared after thorough scrutiny of 1997 voter list in the spirit of Assam Accord, and many were designated as doubtful (D) voters during the process of document verification. The D-voters are those whose documents could not be verified at that point of time and they are now undergoing judicial scrutiny. The voting rights of the D-voters were curtailed on the ground that their citizenship is yet to be ascertained. This small group of people is arguing that these voters of 2014 voter list have passed the test of citizenship and they have given legitimacy to the power-that-be.

The nationality Question

During Assam Movement, the left camp was intellectually represented by the astute social scientist Amalendu Guha and Assamese intellectual stalwart Hiren Gohain. Hiren Gohain in his article ‘Cudgel of Chauvinism’ (EPW Vol XV, No.8, February 23, 1980) wrote, “… it is obvious that they (leaders of the movement : this author’s interpretation) represent a kind of ‘rotten compromise’ between the all India ruling class and the Assamese ruling elite, involving connivance at monstrous barbarities and breathtaking mendacity.” But at a later stage, he became critical about the shortcomings of left’s role. Social movements do not take place in vacuum, and their definite concrete consequences may not be shrugged off merely with an abstract commitment to leftist ideology. Gohain emphasized that the Assam movement has not been seen as a mark of crisis in the Centre’s relation to the north-east. But he was categorical about identifying the movement as not directed against the big bourgeoisie. He asked why mobilising support for economic development programmes and advocating constitutional safeguards for Assamese identity and welfare could not be raised. He asserted that hegemonic notions like the ‘unilingual state of Assam’ ought to be combated, but genuine national demands deserve a stout defence.
He further added in his article “Fall-out of underdevelopment” (EPW, Vol XV, No 12, March 22, 1980) “has migration had no other effect than ‘swamping Assamese Identity’ – as claimed by the Assamese opinion builders? Who built the roads and bridges that brought the different localities in Assam within reach of one another? …Paradoxically enough, it was only the coming of skilled people from outside that indirectly laid the foundation of the Assamese ‘National Identity’ which is bandied so freely by the Assamese leaders of the movement”.
He criticized the left for underestimating emotional force of nationalism in a backward environment with an emergent capitalist class. But he discarded Sanjib Baruah’s rationalisation of the Assamese middle-class aspirations and anxieties as a chimerical guide to action. Criticism of the left was more aggressive for the failure of the left to advocate a development programme that would benefit the Assamese middle class as much as the working people. Sanjib Barua used the term Assamese Sub-Nationalism which, in his opinion, not substantially different from Guha’s notion of little nationalism. When Sanjib Barua termed the Assam movement as nationality upsurge of an unprecedented scale, Guha in his elaborate argument established the fact the Assam movement was an assertion of little nationalism turned chauvinism against the minorities. That the Hindutwa forces was the mastermind and played a vital role in anti-minority pogrom during the movement does not in any way contradict the characterization of the movement as little nationalists turned chauvinist.
Amalendu Guha set the tune of left politics by terming the movement as little nationalism turned chauvinism. The national political leaderships representing the big bourgeoisie also tried to co-opt the Assamese ‘little nationalism’. The Assam movement, according to Amalendu Guha, was a programme led by the Assamese middle class at a conjunctural crisis. According to him, hard pressed by big capital from above and the rising labour and peasant movement from below, the Assamese upper classes are terribly agitated about the economic stagnation. Incapable of competing with big capital, they aspired to monopolise the small industries, petty trade and the profession and services. This diversion of the movement from targeting the big capital by raising issue of development, devolution and democratisation of power to anti-Bengali anit-foreigner’s movement gave the Assamese middle class the required space to collaborate with the national big bourgeoisie. Hiren Gohain (EPW Vol XVI, No.9, February 28, 1991) asserted that the movement was seen as a mark of crisis in Centre’s relation to the north east, the relation which he described as the Centre’s delegation of the gendarme role to the largely caste-Hindu Assamese elite in the north-east. But he was categorical in stating that the movement was not really directed against the big bourgeoisie.

The reality check

However, the present day ground reality compel us to believe that Guha had overemphasized the process of assimilation of Maymansingh Muslims in lower Assam and the tea-garden people in Upper Assam with Assamese nationality. Adoption of Assamese language in education and in daily mundane vocabulary was not much influenced by the pull of Market (Bazaar), it was predominantly due to political reason. But it can be safely predicted that the process of assimilation would have been accelerated, had the Assamese sub-nationalism treaded the path of democratic accommodation instead of chauvinistic coercion which is snowballing into resistance and apathy of the minorities towards Assamese language and culture. During the late 1970s and 80s, the Bengali people preferred to speak in Assamese language in public places especially in cities of Brahmaputra valley. The fear psychosis kept their voices in mother-tongue used in private places and within the family muted in public places. But the loud underclass vocabulary in clear Bengali Maymansingh dialect will not skip the attention of any observer in any work or public place of present day Guwahati city, where the presence of Maymanshing workers has increased many-fold. This is a clear sign of spontaneous assertion of the identity of workers who are predominantly rural agricultural surplus labour of lower Assam. The recent mobilization of tea-garden Adivasi community in tens of thousands in many places of Upper Assam in protest against the claim of ‘Khilonjia (Aboriginals) Manch’ headed by erstwhile ULFA leaders for exclusion of tea-garden from Khilonjia (aboriginal) category, is also the clear sign of identity assertion. The complex grid line of synchronization or assimilation gets tripped by the chauvinist politics of Assamese little or sub-nationalism. The weakness of class leadership of a motley group of Middle Class who were spearheading the movement turned the genuine aspirations of the Assamese sub-nationalism into hostility towards their other fellow neighbours. As the class character of the small and middle peasant is petit-bourgeois in nature, they could be easily mobilised by triggering the ethnic fault-lines and inciting artificial appetite for grabbing the land of other communities. That the land question was not the major issue became amply clear when the plain tribes who were mobilized during the movement for violent action resorted for the movement of political rights soon after Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the political formations emerged from Assam movement, was installed in state-power post-Assam Accord. The politics of ethnic cleansing and exclusion in Bodoland was led against all non-Bodo people including the Assamese mainly to prove the majority of Bodo people in the domain of Bodoland. After almost fifty years of Assam movement, under the changed socio-economic polity, this middle class has lost their ability to play any leading progressive role and they are completely dependent on the state apparatuses to fulfill their chauvinist plan of action of disenfranchisement of the minority communities.

The socio-economic changes

The Assamese ruling elites as described by Hiren Gohain are much more entangled with big bourgeoisie and foreign capital than at the time of Assam movement. So we must delve into the emerging socio-economic scenario to find the answer to the question of how the democratic movement can be rejuvenated to address all the vexed issues within the garb of the here and the now. The left forces of Assam who are lurching in wilderness needs to see the light of the day beyond their narrow horizon. A large section of left minded people have surrendered to the occasion and waiting for a tryst with destiny.
What we presently observe in the rural landscape of Assam is to a great extent similar to the Myron Weiner’s pregnant observations of West Bengal in his survey done in 1959. The left-based occupational organizations such as unions and peasant organizations are missing in both urban and rural Assam. The political hegemony on the masses is established and controlled by various socio-political, economic and ideological institutions. But these institutions are rapidly losing their credibility under pressure from neo-liberal policy drive. Large scale proletarianisation and/or precariatisation has occurred both in rural and urban sector. The space for regional bourgeoisie to maneuver has shrunk and they are becoming the appendages of foreign capital and comprador bourgeoisie. Whatever may be the amount of investment in development work till 1990s, all the works were parceled in various small trenches and implemented through a decentralized administrative set-up to facilitate the local investors to participate and grab the contracts, and these norms had acted in favour of encouraging small scale investment in production of supply materials, albeit in a limited scope. But going by the logic of neo-liberal policy drive, all the trenches for work and supply are now amalgamated in common centralized pool for funding by the foreign multinational banks and to facilitate global tenders and contracts for foreign companies. These foreign companies engage the local small bourgeoisie as sub-contractors, and the chain of sub-contractors terminate at the rural and urban work sites. The large section of officers and employees also get entrenched in this chain through the mediation and intervention of political class who serves the interest of these foreign investors. This typical chain of social-relations that emerged in backward region like Assam through the involvement of finance capital in neo-liberal phase of economy has already eaten up the vital of the middle classes to fight for regional autonomy. The profit and the corrupt money are amassed through over-exploitation of toiling masses which constitute predominantly of the minority communities and the flight of capital as profit arrests the industrial development of the state. That is why; the progressive organizations and citizens get lukewarm response from these middle classes when issues like privatization of oil sectors, withdrawal of special status category of the state etc are opposed.

The working class and the democratic movement
It is pertinent here to quote the remark of Ajoy Ghosh, the then General Secretary of CPI, on the resolution adopted by the party congress in 1953. He said, “We should note that the demand for Linguistic States is a demand which unites all classes inside a nationality, including the feudal classes. We do not reject such a unity, but we consider the unity of the toiling masses of different nationalities as the most precious thing which must not be violated at any cost.” He further affirmed, “….while struggling for Linguistic States we have always to bear in mind that the overriding consideration in all cases must be the unity of the toiling masses and not the unity with the bourgeoisie inside each nationality. The unity of the toiling masses is the biggest asset of the communist party which must never be lost” (Modak : 2006 :125). The CPI was advocating this line in the early 1950s when the feudal relation of production was predominant in agriculture, and the feudal forces had a strong influence in the power-that-be. The CPI in practice had long drifted away from this position in Assam, and it seems the marginalised CPI(M) leadership are now busy in burning the mid-night oil to draw a strategy to accommodate chauvinist content and to pander chauvinist forces. But this is the opportune moment when the left can rely on the toiling masses to build the democratic struggle anew and to defeat the reactionary politics of communalism and chauvinism once for all. This becomes relevant when the social relation of production is rapidly changing, and the productive forces and the socio-political institutions are failing to accommodate the emerging social relations. But the resurgence of left-democratic movement cannot become a reality until the left ideology does not become the motive force. From a working class perspective, the programme for sustainable development generating job opportunities and preserving vast eco-diversity and for addressing class and nationality aspirations of Assam needs to be formulated. This programme needs to be taken to the masses by building class organizations in rural and urban sectors, and through the united efforts of disparate forces who are committed to fight the twin menace of communalism and chauvinism.

The resolution of conflict

With the changing social relations of production, class-caste-nationality dimensions are undergoing a change. Caste is a class in feudal relations of production where both economic and political institutions are not segregated in time-space and are dominated by upper castes. But the economics and politics are visibly getting segregated under the influence of imperialist-capitalist model of combined and uneven development. This process of segregation has accelerated in the neo-liberal phase of development and under the spell of capitalist market forces. All the data indicate that in the vast expanse of Indian nation, a homogenous working class is emerging cutting across caste-nationally boundaries and this is also visible in this backward state of Assam too. Without organizing and depending on this newly emerged working class, final push for democratization of society and politics cannot be achieved. The conflict between the idea of nation conceptualised by hindutwa brand of politics from above and the multi-cultural multi-lingual idea of Indian nation can be settled in favour of the latter only under class leadership of newly emerged toiling masses. 

References :

(1)  Ahmed, Abu Nasar Saied (2006): Nationality Question in Assam, The EPW 1980-81 Debate : Akansha Pulishing House.
(2)  Baisya, Arup (January 2018) : Citizenship Question and Assam Politics : Article published in frontier Weekly. (
 (3) Desai, A.R. (1998) : Recent Trend in Indian Nationalism : Popular Prakashan Private Limited.
 (4) Moday, Debnarayan (2006) : Dynamics of National Question in India, The Communist Approach (1942-64) : Progressive Publishers.


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